EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Sterling Shepard is the only player on the current roster who has won a season opener or played in a postseason game in a Giants uniform. He is eager to shed both of those designations.
Shepard will get his first opportunity Sunday, when the Giants open their 2022 season against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
For Shepard, entering his seventh season and the longest-tenured Giants player, playing in the game is a personal triumph. Less than nine months ago – Dec. 19 to be exact – he tore his Achilles tendon against the Dallas Cowboys. He underwent surgery and worked diligently to be ready for the start of the season. Shepard did not play in any of the Giants' three preseason games but was certain he'd face the Titans.
"I never thought otherwise," Shepard said this week. "I worked my tail off for it. Nothing was given to me, but I knew that if I wanted to come back and I wanted to be ready for Week 1, I was going to have to do that, and it was a long process. But I put my head down and fell in love with the process and was grinding every day to try to do something to get better every day."
But Shepard didn't endure all that just to run around on the field. He wants to be productive and help the team win. The Giants haven't been victorious on Kickoff Weekend since his first NFL game on Sept. 11, 2016, when they defeated the Cowboys in Dallas, 20-19. Shepard caught three passes, including a nine-yard touchdown. In the opener last year, he had game-high totals of seven receptions for 113 yards, including a 37-yard score, but the Giants lost to Denver, 27-13.
"That's what you always hope for, to start the season off right with a bang," Shepard said. "Get that first game and get some of those jitters out, but also perform well. It's been a while since I've been on the field for a game, so just to get that confidence, build it up would be huge for me. Either way it goes, I'm just going to try to do my part and help the team out. Try to get this W."
The Giants earned their most recent playoff berth in Shepard's rookie season. He caught four passes for 43 yards in a wild card loss in Green Bay. Six seasons later, he is the only one of the 46 Giants who were in uniform that day who is still with the team.
He yearns to again perform on the big stage of the postseason.
"That's the objective," he said. "That's the reason we all play this game, and I am the only one who's been to the playoffs with this team. That's something I want all my teammates to experience, because there's no place like winning in New York. I mean, New York is the place to do it. And I want everybody to experience that. That's what I'm looking forward to."
He believes Brian Daboll's first Giants team can give him that opportunity.
"Just looking around at the locker room, we've got a great group of guys that are buying into the system and guys that know what it takes to win," he said. "The coaches are putting us in position to win games. You look at the offense, it's so many different things – moving parts – going on. And you know, different guys are going to be touching the ball, which is huge. I feel like everybody's at their best. And you got a squad like that, it's definitely promising. We got to put in the work, and we got to be the ones to make this train move. And it's going to be a big test for us Sunday against a really good team and a team that's been to the playoffs a number of times. This will be a good test for us."
Shepard has already passed a few tests of his own, including returning to good health after his Achilles injury. He played a full 16-game season just twice in his first six years and in the last three seasons has played 10, 12 and a career-low seven games.
Despite that, Shepard enters the season eighth in Giants history with 349 receptions. But his injury history has taught him a harsh lesson that nothing is guaranteed.
"It's a brutal sport that we play," he said. "I do everything in my power to stay healthy and stay on the field. Some things are just out of your control. There's nothing that I can do about my Achilles. I was working my calves throughout the offseason – did everything I could. Sometimes things happen. It's just freak stuff that happens from time-to-time, and some guys are more fortunate than others. I'm going to play my game. I'm going to do what I always do. I'm going to go out there and play real hard, with passion, and however the chips may fall is where they fall. But I'm going to do me."
Shepard is playing for his fourth head coach and in his fourth offensive system. Much has been made of quarterback Daniel Jones having to scrub previous schemes from his mind and learn the offense Daboll brought to the Giants. Shepard said there's "a ton of stuff" now irrelevant in his mind as he masters the new and ignores the old.
"It's super hard," he said. "The verbiage will be the same, but it's a completely different play. You've got to wipe it out and pick up the new system. The old things will pop up, and you will revert back to those, especially in the heat of battle. The first thing that pops into your brain is the one that you've repped the most. Sometimes, you got to do a good job to just keep on repping it at practice and make it a new habit."
The Giants' roster has been significantly altered since the arrival of general manager Joe Schoen and Daboll, but they made it clear they want Shepard on the team.
"It means a lot," Shepard said. "Obviously, that's the reason why I chose to stay here. You want people that want you to be there, and that's the sense that I got when we had to renegotiate. They wanted me to be a part of this team, and just the leadership that I bring as well as my game. That's the way it's always been viewed. And I'm happy to be part of this group."
The losing, the injuries, the persistent turnover on the coaching staff and playing in different offenses has not dampened Shepard's enthusiasm for the game.
"I love this game," Shepard said. "It's just like when I was a kid. It's a little bit more added pressure with me getting paid to play, but at the end of the day, this is a sport. And this is a game. And I feel like whenever you treat it as such, you treat it as a game and you actually have fun with it, is when you play your best ball. That's how I go out there and I approach it. I'm definitely serious, but I love doing this."
He'll love it even more when the Giants start winning.
*The Giants listed arguably their two best pass rushers, Azeez Ojulari (calf) and rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux (knee), as doubtful. The only other player on their final injury report is rookie safety Dane Belton, who is questionable with a clavicle injury. All three of those players, plus wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who is not on the game status report, were limited in practice.
*Coach Brian Daboll said he hasn't decided if Ben Bredeson or rookie Joshua Ezeudu will start at left guard.
"I think both those guys, Bredeson and Ezeudu, have done a good job all week," Daboll said. "So, we'll practice today. We'll reconvene tomorrow morning with the coaching staff and watch practice today and then decide which way to go with it."
Is Ezeudu's lack of experience a factor in the decision?
"We don't talk about it like that," Daboll said. "These guys have gone out here the last couple of days – three days – to make sure they know what to do. Obviously, he didn't play a lot in the preseason, but a lot of guys didn't play. I know he's a rookie, but he did a good job for us up until the point where he kind of got dinged. But he's practiced well these last few days."
*Cornerback Adoree' Jackson played his first four seasons for the Titans before joining the Giants as a free agent last year. He will play his first game in Tennessee since leaving the team.
"I would say the emotions I do have is I'm excited to go back, to see the familiar faces and see everybody," Jackson said. "But at the same time, it's Week 1. So that's another emotion. It's two emotions in one. I'm excited to go back, but I'm also excited because it's Week 1. It's just crazy how it turns out we're playing my former team."
View photos of the New York Giants' 2022 roster as it currently stands.